The classic battle of old man vs old machine

There’s been a lot of talk about the power and potential of AI, but for gamers, this is nothing new. For decades now humans have been engaging in battles of wits with machines, whether they’re multicolored ghosts or classy vampire ladies. It’s an eternal struggle that we decided to reignite for Shogi Day on 17 November.

This day honors a tournament held by Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune in the 18th century featuring Japan’s variant of chess known as shogi. Shogi has a similar objective and moveset as chess but varies in a number of ways, such as a larger board and more pieces. Its most noticeable differences are the ability to “promote” pieces into more powerful versions with expanded moves as well as the ability to place pieces you capture from your opponent anywhere on the board.

These rules add a layer of complexity that may even give artificial intelligence a difficult time. Modern AIs might be able to handle its random aspects with relative ease, but how about a shogi simulator from 1987 for the Famicom (NES)?

To find out, we decided to pit one such game against not one but three human opponents:

Go Hatori: “It’s in the bag!”

Mr. Sato: “Allow me to show you how a real adult plays shogi.”

Seiji Nakazawa: “It’s all a matter of calculations.”

Granted, these three shogi players have a cumulative lifetime record of zero wins, but as they say, two heads are better than one. That must mean three heads are like…way better.

In the other corner, we have Morita Shogi. This is a 1987 Seta port of the 1985 PC game by Enix, boasting 34 kilobytes of shogi-playing wisdom, backed by the blistering speed of the Famicom’s 8-bit processor.

We managed to get a copy for 528 yen (US$3.53).

Without wasting time, our trio blew on the cartridge and plugged it into the console. Much to their surprise, there was already a game in progress on the battery-powered memory, possibly from over 30 years ago. It’s worth noting that Morita Shogi was actually the first game cartridge ever to feature a battery backup system.

As impressive as that was, a new game was needed to ensure fairness. Morita Shogi offers 10 levels of difficulty with one being the easiest… so they chose level one.

Our humans started off enthusiastically, sharing tactics and watching their collective back against their digital foe.

Everyone fell into their roles, with Go taking a more aggressive approach seeking to capture as many pieces as possible. Seiji was the opposite and tried to defensively anticipate the computer’s counterattacks while Mr. Sato surveyed the entire board to support both strategies.

They put a lot of care into each move and took their time to plan it properly. However, each time they finished their turn, the computer returned its move in a matter of seconds, which became more and more disheartening as the game progressed.

The box on the top left shows our heroes taking a total of 19 minutes and 11 seconds to make 27 moves while the box on the top right shows that the computer only required one minute and 14 seconds.

Realizing shogi isn’t a race, our team held strong and kept the game on an even footing by the 50th move, but by the 100th the scales seemed to tilt in the CPU’s favor.

Morita Shogi had not only captured their key pieces of a silver general and rook but also penetrated their defensive line with its own dragon king (promoted rook) and dragon horse (promoted bishop). Even if you’re not familiar with shogi, you can probably imagine that having a dragon king inside your defenses is a pretty bad thing.

Everyone was beginning to lose hope when Go rallied the troops by saying the best defense is a good offense and that they should strike hard when the computer least expects it. They charged deep behind enemy lines to promote their own bishop into a dragon horse.

It was a long shot, but Go had faith it would work. His partners, on the other hand…

Mr. Sato: “I think we’re gonna lose.”
Go: “Huh? You think?”
Seiji: “Yeah, our backs are against the wall.”

Our writers didn’t even know how right they were, because on the very next turn the computer placed on of our writers’ own pieces that it had captured back on the board right next to their king and…

“Player 2 [CPU] is the winner.”

Everyone: “We lost!!!”

The boys offered condolences of “good game” and “that’s how it goes” to each other, knowing that this loss was a team effort and everyone was to blame.

Here’s the full hour-long game for those interested in the technical details of what happened.

Mr. Sato had hoped to give everyone titles to celebrate their victory over the easiest setting of a 36-year-old video game but decided to do it anyway…

“Charging Idiot who Rushes in Without Thinking: Go Hatori”

Laid-back Idiot who Doesn’t Think about Anything: Mr. Sato”

Intellectual Idiot who Pretends to be a Strategist: Seiji Nakazawa”

Still, they haven’t given up hope on winning a game of shogi once in their lives. They’ll be back next Shogi Day to try again… unless they’re busy. In that case, we’ll just have to see how it goes from there.

Photos © SoraNews24
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[ Read in Japanese ]